Often I come across an article or a quiz asking me to examine my “work-life balance.” It’s a term we should have all encountered by now – whether in a magazine, an HR seminar, even in a casual dinner conversation. To nod your head and affirm, “Of course, I have a great work-life balance,” carries a sense of pride as if you’re really saying “Yeah, I’ve got it all together.” But what defines a work-life balance? Must the parts always be equal to keep the scales from tipping too far in one direction?
We spend the majority of our waking hours working in some capacity. In the best case scenario, only 40 hours of our week is spent in a formal work environment, but what about all of those evening and weekend emails, phone calls and “emergency projects” that cut into the little time we’re already given for “life?” Such tasks sneak extra weight onto the “work” side of the scale and can lead to an imbalance we don’t even know exists.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken more notice to how I’ve been chipping away at my free time by choosing to do a several minutes of work-related tasks here and there. Even just a few minutes can turn into hours over the course of a week. For example, I try to finish up my last work project of the day no later than 6pm. But while I enjoy dinner and a little bit of television, my mind is still very much on work. If I hear the chirp of an email – I answer it. And so this persists throughout the evenings and into the weekends. My best estimate is that on average, I burden myself with an additional 7-10 hours of work each week beyond what’s expected or demanded. When all added up, that’s a full day! A day in which I could have taken a road trip, enjoyed the beautiful fall weather or simply decompressed. And while these off-hour emails may help progress work, they put a major halt on life.
Back when I wrote about The Two-Day Truce, I urged everyone to resist the urge to do unnecessary work on the weekends because it only causes the recipients of the emails to feel the pressure to respond. Essentially it takes away from everyone’s weekend. I have gotten better about not being a weekend warrior with work, but I realized an even bigger problem. We’re so trained to work, we do it without even knowing it. Consciously we may feel like we’re living a pretty balanced life, but really our scales are so off kilter they’re nearly falling over altogether.
I couldn’t tell you how many times a day I check my phone for new emails, especially after “work hours.” I’m not sure I would want to know. By proactively checking for emails and refreshing my inbox, I’m looking for work to do instead of enjoying that other component that should fill our time – life. A true Work-Life Balance is so much more than saying you leave your office or close your laptop at 6pm. Chances are we’re very accessible to work during any of the hours in between. But when we’re at work are we this accessible to life? Every week’s schedule is different and there’s no doubt that there will be some weeks that demand an imbalanced share of our time for work. The key is to find the balance not every day or every week, but over the long run.
The Work-Life Balance may not be so much about balance after all. Maybe it’s more about flexibility and our openness to work more when we absolutely have to, but to also seize extra moments of “life” when the opportunity should arise. If you can’t close down by 6pm tonight, don’t sweat it, but plan for some extra relaxing time in your schedule later this weekend to make up for the difference and realign the balance!
What about you. Is your work-life balanced…flexible…or somewhat of both?